Up by 17 points in the third quarter in their 2002 AFC wild-card playoff game at Heinz Field, the Browns looked to be in great shape.
In fact, Browns wide receiver Kevin Johnson said a Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back told him then, “Good luck next week.”
Indeed, it appeared the Browns were headed to Oakland for the divisional round.
As it turned out, though, the Browns were headed home after the Steelers rallied with 22 fourth-quarter points to win, 36-33, on Jan. 5, 2003.
Being that this is the only time during the expansion era that they have qualified for the postseason, it was arguably the toughest and most disappointing defeat the Browns have suffered since they were re-born in 1999.
But it started in such promising fashion.
A one-yard touchdown run by William Green was the only score of the first quarter, then the Browns increased their margin to 17-7 at halftime after Kelly Holcomb threw a 32-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Dennis Northcutt and
Pittsburgh’s offense was shut out in the first half. The Steelers’ only score came on Antwaan Randle El’s 66-yard punt return for a touchdown.
When the Browns opened the second half with another Holcomb-to-Northcutt scoring pass, this one of 15 yards, their advantage ballooned to 17 points, 24-7.
Tommy Maddox’s six-yard scoring pass to wide receiver Plaxico Burress later in the third quarter made it 24-14, and set the stage for a wild final quarter.
It began on Dawson’s second field goal, of 24 yards, to up the score to 27-14, then the teams traded touchdown receptions, Jerame Tuman’s three-yarder and Andre Davis’ 22-yarder for the Browns to make it 33-21. That was still the score when the Browns dropped a pass on a third-and-12 play with four minutes left that would have clinched the win.
Getting new life, the Steelers scored two touchdowns to win it on Maddox’s five-yard pass to wide receiver Hines Ward and Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala’s three-yard run with 54 seconds left.
A last-ditch Browns drive ended at the Pittsburgh 29 when wide receiver Andre King caught a 16-yard pass but then could not get out of bounds in time to stop the clock before it expired.
Holcomb was brilliant in defeat. Starting for Tim Couch, who had suffered a broken leg six days earlier in the regular-season finale against the Atlanta Falcons, he turned in one of the greatest performances by a quarterback in Browns postseason history, completing 26 of 43 attempts for 429 yards and three touchdowns with one interception for a 105.7 passing rating.
Northcutt caught six passes for 92 yards and the two scores, while Johnson had 140 receiving yards on just four receptions, one of which was an 83-yarder to set up Green’s scoring run.
Holcomb completed passes to nine different receivers.
Northcutt also had a 59-yard punt return.
But it just wasn’t enough.
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